Monday, October 6, 2014

Kvetching at Mediation: A Jewish View with Universal Application

One might ask, why do mediators allow participants to kvetch, Yiddish for complain or vent, during mediation? What good is discussing the past during the reconciliation process when it comes to shaping a resolution for present and future? After all, according to Israel philosopher Avishai Margalit:

[T]here is no backward causality. We cannot affect the past; we cannot undo the past, resurrect the past, or revivify the past. Only descriptions of the past can be altered, improved, or animated. The past itself, unlike its descriptions, cannot be brought back either in form or in essence (Margalit, The Ethics of Memory, 2002, p.66)

So why accommodate into mediation, an effort at peacemaking, something as unchangeable and subjective as the kvetch? Why encourage parties to tell opposing versions of the past? The answer has to do with the need for venting, since identifying needs is a major function of the mediator’s job. Venting fulfills many needs:  the need to have a voice in the relationship, the need to hear and be heard, and the need to release pent-up emotions. One need that is not often explored, however, is the need to rebuke.
Rabbi Shimon, son of Lakish, a/k/a Reish Lakish, was a bandit turned religious scholar who lived in the Galilee in the third century of the common-era. In his exegeses of the biblical verse “And Abraham reproved Abimelech (Gen 21:25),” Reish Lakish explained, “reproof leads to peace.” Then he made an even bolder statement, “Peace unaccompanied by reproof is not peace (Midrash Genesis Rabbah).”
To understand Reish Lakish, one would first have to understand what he meant by peace. Reish Lakish lived in 3rd century Palestine under Roman (Byzantine) occupation. In this context, peace could have meant Pax, the Latin etymological source for the word, or it could have meant shalom, the Hebrew word for peace, which has a completely different etymology.
Pax is a cessation of violence, a truce, whereas shalom is a return to wholeness or completeness. Pax, unaccompanied by reproof is still a truce, but shalom unaccompanied by reproof is definitely not the peace and harmony of wholeness. This raises the question:  when mediators facilitate discourse between disputants do they seek a truce or shalom?
In my mediation training at the Center for Conflict Resolution in Chicago, we were taught that the relationship is always an agenda item of the mediation, but how the relationship of the disputants will look like after mediation is none of our business. Our interest is the conversation. Mediators often feel like they have to sit on their hands and bite their tongues to stop themselves from making suggestions or directing the parties to the agreement they see as right. “Right”, however, has little to do with mediation. In fact, the dispute, in many cases, is caused by the subjectivity of righteousness and justice. Each side has a narrative that highlights their own righteousness and the other side’s injustice. When disputants choose litigation, they are seeking justice, which is the determination of righteousness according to the law by an outside party.
Many biblical scholars believe that the Holiness Code – found in Leviticus chapter nineteen – was written well before the text that surrounds it. If true, this is a significant theory because it means it does not take its authority from God, but rather is a human commentary on morality.  If viewed as a religious doctrine, it is a form of justice prescribed by a divine external authority. However, the Holiness Code includes a prescription for peace that tries to preempt divine justice. “Do not hate your sibling in your heart. You must certainly rebuke your neighbor (Lev. 19:17).” Interestingly, the verse ends with what might be an addition to the original text, “and not bear sin because of him.” Sin is a violation of divine law, but it is quite possible that the Holiness Code aspired to achieve peace by rebuke without divine justice.
Wisely, we mediators are professionally instructed that this is not our mediation: that the participants know their needs and will have to live with their decisions. We don’t decide whether peace is pax or shalom.

The job of the mediator is humbling, and the mediator understands that real peace is the construct of the disputing parties. The mediator allows venting because people get stuck in their own stories and often can’t see beyond them. When participants in mediation tell their stories, they are not trying to do backward causality. They are sharing their understandings of the past. This kvetching is their chance to be heard and to hear, to give voice and flesh out the substance of the dispute. Most of all, kvetching and rebuke are essential to peace making because “peace unaccompanied by reproof is not peace,” otherwise it is just a truce.